Netanyahu’s carrot-and-stick policy on Gaza

Both left and right are uneasy about growing violence from the border, but the prime minister has a plan.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) speaks with IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi during an event honoring outstanding IDF reservists, at the President's Residence in Jerusalem on July 1, 2019. Photo by Hadas Parush/Flash90.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) speaks with IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi during an event honoring outstanding IDF reservists, at the President's Residence in Jerusalem on July 1, 2019. Photo by Hadas Parush/Flash90.
Ruthie Blum. Photo by Ariel Jerozolomski.
Ruthie Blum
Ruthie Blum, former adviser at the office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is an award-winning columnist and senior contributing editor at JNS, as well as co-host, with Amb. Mark Regev, of "Israel Undiplomatic" on JNS-TV. She writes and lectures on Israeli politics and culture, and on U.S.-Israel relations. Originally from New York City, she moved to Israel in 1977 and is based in Tel Aviv.

Of all the criticism lobbed at Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu these days, the claim that he has been exercising restraint towards the terrorists in Gaza to distract from his legal battles and guarantee victory in the fast-approaching Sept. 17 Knesset elections is the most ridiculous. As any member of the Israeli public and political echelon is keenly aware, the one thing that should worry Netanyahu’s opponents is a war.

This is particularly true today, when Israeli residents of the Gaza-border communities—the “envelope” around the Hamas-ruled enclave—are suffering from an understandable mixture of fatigue and fury. Traumatized by living under daily threat of death and destruction with only minimal respite between rockets, riots and incendiary balloons will do that. Especially considering the fact that while Palestinian children in Gaza attend summer camps where they learn how to kill Jews, the Israeli kids on the other side of the fence spend their vacation listening for Red Alert sirens telling them to take cover in the nearest bomb shelter.

That the politicians to the right of Netanyahu’s ruling Likud Party have been shouting about a lack of Israeli deterrence makes perfect sense. Though only a handful of such candidates believes in reoccupying Gaza—and the rest don’t really have a viable plan other than applying even more Israeli firepower in the ongoing battle of attrition—all of those running on right-wing tickets are telling the electorate that Netanyahu, whose re-election is the only shot they have at being players in the next government, needs a fierce hawkish push.

But those to the left of Netanyahu also are accusing him of being weak in the face of Palestinian violence. This is not merely hypocritical. It is evidence that even much of the so-called “peace camp” is trying to attract voters who see no chance for peace in the foreseeable future, with or without the soon-to-be-unveiled White House plan.

The far-left is a different story, of course, so it blew a gasket over former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s Israel Democratic Party’s “talking points,” which were more militaristic than diplomatic. After all, the key difference between right and left in the country is that the latter blames Israel for a lack of peace, and still (mysteriously) has faith in the kind of diplomacy that leads to the establishment of a Palestinian state through suicidal Israeli compromises.

Meanwhile, the Blue and White Party, which is virtually neck-and-neck with Likud in the polls, has been singing a similar anti-Netanyahu tune. Ahead of the last elections in April, its leader, Benny Gantz, bragged about his prowess as chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces during “Operation Protective Edge” by saying that he “sent parts of Gaza back to the Stone Age.”

Another “cause” that candidates on the right and the left share has to do with the money that Netanyahu has allowed Qatar to deliver to Gaza for “humanitarian” purposes.

Again, it’s logical for the right to bemoan any perceived reward or capitulation to Hamas. But the left has been just as vociferous against this aspect of diplomacy that it normally cheers, however, on the grounds—as Gantz put it—that the “loss of deterrence, the suitcases of dollars are once again being passed and there is no political achievement that will guarantee quiet for the residents of the vicinity.”

A third right-left anti-Netanyahu assertion is that the prime minister “has no policy” where Gaza is concerned.

This couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, his two-pronged approach was revealed prior to and during his trip this week to Ukraine.

On the tarmac of Ben-Gurion International Airport, just before boarding his flight to Kiev on Sunday, Netanyahu reiterated a warning that he has been issuing to Hamas for weeks: that if it didn’t stop its violence, Israel would launch a full-scale attack, hinting at a ground invasion.

“I heard comments that I am refraining from a large [military] campaign because of the elections. This is not correct,” Netanyahu told reporters, adding that if it is required, Israel will deal a blow to Hamas that hasn’t been seen before.

This is the “stick” side of the equation.

The “carrot” counterpart emerged on Monday, when a senior government official told the press that for the past year, Netanyahu’s National Security Council has been working to encourage Palestinians who wish to do so to leave Gaza and relocate to other countries in the Middle East and Europe.

The official said that more than 35,000 Gaza residents moved elsewhere during 2018, without Israel’s help. But Israel announced its willingness to provide and pay for flights out of the Netavim Airport for any Gazan seeking a better life away from the terrorist-ruled Strip.

Naturally, no country so far has agreed to absorb the people for whom so many hearts purportedly bleed around the world. Whether Israel succeeds in persuading any states to welcome the many families living in Hamas hell who yearn to start fresh abroad remains to be seen.

What’s clear at this moment, though, is that anyone accusing Netanyahu of “having no policy” is either in denial or just dead wrong.

Ruthie Blum is an Israel-based journalist and author of “To Hell in a Handbasket: Carter, Obama, and the ‘Arab Spring.’ ” 

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